Unlike the obscure origins of most other American sports, Croquet’s beginning in the United States is quite definite. Well, that is if we believe a newspaper advertisement from 1863, in which Daniel O. Goodrich, proprietor of the Boston Bazaar, claimed to have introduced the game to the American public two years earlier, in 1861.
It was in the summer of 1863, however, when the game “came into much use” and became “the rage” of the summer. (Boston Evening Transcript, 1 Oct. 1863).
Croquet might have been introduced in Boston, but it was also played in New York in 1863. A new rule book about Croquet, written by Irish-American novelist Captain Mayne Reid appeared in the fall of 1863, and sold for just 50 cents. Reid called the game the “pastime of the age”, an intellectual, skilled game for men and women, and a “game of true civilizing influence.” Croquet sets and copies of Reid’s book were soon for sale in Chicago, Hartford, Boston, New York, and even Lancaster, PA.
The game seemed to catch on the quickest in the old Northeast. A newspaper editor in Springfield, MA discovered the game in 1864. “Early in the summer of last year , we noticed, on the lawn of one of our finest residences, a mysterious array of hoops driven into the ground at regular intervals. Our first thought was of an incipient bird-trap, but we were soon relieved from our apprehensions by seeing the game of croquet in full operation.” The editor noted that the game was making rapid progress, especially because it could be played by all. (Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, VT, 28 July 1865).
A correspondent from Centre Harbor, New Hampshire, noted in the summer of 1865 that “Croquet has been a favorite amusement” at the vacation resorts in the White Mountains. (Boston Evening Transcript, 15 August 1865) The “graceful movement of croquet” had become “quite popular” in Lancaster, PA, as well because the game was “innocent and healthful amusement for young people of both sexes.” (Intelligencer Journal, 29 Sept. 1865).
Brooklyn, N.Y., was also an early hotspot of American croquet-playing, Croquet clubs and a league had formed there in 1865. A correspondent in Newport, R.I. spoke of the “apparently inexhaustibly fascinating game” that the popular figure in the community were playing. (The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA), 29 Sept. 1865). In addition to playing the game on one’s own croquet green, public croquet grounds opened across the country.
Even the St. Louis Germans were interested in Croquet.
The text reads:
(Feiertage. Nie sehen wir eine bessere Sammlung von Schreibpulten, Croquet und anderen Spielen, photographischen Albums, Stereoskopbildern, Damen und Herren Toilette-Kästchen, Arbeitskörbchen, Gedicht- und anderen berühmten Büchern im feinsten Band mit vielen neuen Sachen und Kinderbüchern, als in Hrn. (Herrn) McIntyres Store No. 9 südliche 5. Straße, offen jeden Abend bis zum 1. Jan (Januar)Westliche Post (St. Louis, MO, 12 Dec. 1865).
A rough translation is: “Holidays. We have never seen a better collection of writing desks, Croquet and other games, photographic albums, stereoscopic images, ladies and gentlemen’s toiletries, work baskets, poetry and other famous books in the finest volume with lots of new things and children’s books than in Mr. McIntyre’s store, No. 9 South 5th Street, open every evening until Jan 1st. “
By the 1870s, Croquet was everywhere in the United States, but was particularly popular, it appears, in the Northeast and Midwest. Moralists generally approved of the game, but its success owed in some degree to its social function as event to bring together single young men and women. “It was at croquet I met her” began a column in the Lancaster Examiner (16 Jan. 1867). “She had on delicate floating apparel, which refreshed one some way to look at. She had great blue eyes, and a “strawberries-and-cream” complexion, and the merriest little laugh in the world…”
The image of the young social woman playing croquet spread far and wide. In a serialized tale there was “Lulu Raynor in her piquant croquet dress and hat, as she knocked the balls here and there, keeping the whole party in an uproar with her wit and satire.” (Holmes County Republican (Millersburg, OH), 12 Dec. 1872).
In addition to romance, the game offered rivalry, frustration, and violence. Stories of violence at croquet games were common. A man in Clayton, Indiana was clubbed over the head in a croquet quarrel and was expected not to survive. (St. Joseph Herald (Saint Joseph, MI), 11 Nov. 1871). A croquet game in Virginia ended with a fatal shot from a pistol of one of the upset players. (The Wilmington Post (Wilmington N.C.), 9 Nov. 1871). Nevertheless, Croquet was still declared “less violent than base ball.” (The Fairbury Gazette, Fairbury, NE), 5 August 1871). A Nebraska newspaper called the game dangerous for bachelors, asserting that it would lead to into marriage. (Daily Chronicle (Nebraska City, Nebraska), 8 Feb. 1871. Jokes combining the violence of croquet and the lure of the genders were common too. “A girl in Shelby, KY, was provoked by the bad play of her partner at croquet. She struck him on the head with a mallet, and caused a brain fever, of which he nearly died. She was kept in custody until he recovered and then she married him.” (The Boonville Enquirer (Boonville, Indiana), 15 Dec. 1877. The following tale from 1875 represents this mood:
“There are, says the Buffalo Courier, two persons on the lawn. It is pa and ma. They are playing croquet. She is ahead of him. See how she smiles. There, he has passed her. She does not smile now. How he keeps going through the arches. It is not her turn yet. But how hard she hits her ball. Did you hear some glass jingle? It was the cellar window. There is her mallet, too. It is flying towar the man. See how he dodges it. It has landed over the fence. The woman has got through. She is going into the house. How furiously she twitches along. Now the man is left alone. He is playing croquet all by himself.” (The Boscobel Dial (Boscobel, WI), 24 Sept. 1875).
Imagine Major League Croquet instead of Major League baseball. Why didn’t croquet continue in popularity? An 1893 book called croquet a “once extremely popular game” that had been recently crowded out by lawn tennis. (Henry Chadwick, The reliable book of outdoor games. Containing official rules for playing base ball, foot ball, cricket, lacrosse, tennis, croquet, etc. (New York: F.M. Lupton, 1893), 42. It seems that by the 1890s, the croquet craze had quieted down. The game never left American culture entirely and was still pulled out during the calm days of summer. But the moment of croquet excitement was in the the 1860s through 1880s. It was a moment, like the bicycle craze and the personal camera fascination to follow, that could not be repeated.
For further reading:
John Sterngass, “Cheating, Gender Roles, and the Nineteenth-Century Croquet Craze” Journal of Sport History 25: 3 (Fall, 1998) 398-418.
R.M. Lewis, “American Croquet in the 1860s: Playing the Game and Winning” Journal of Sport History 18: 3 (Winter, 1991), 365-286.